Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s ‘Ruthlessly Eugenic’ Economic Case for Abortion

Secretary Yellen described a world where women need abortion to succeed.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks to journalists on the sidelines of a meeting of finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of Seven industrialised nations (G7) on May 18, 2022 in Koenigswinter near Bonn, western Germany.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks to journalists on the sidelines of a meeting of finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of Seven industrialised nations (G7) on May 18, 2022 in Koenigswinter near Bonn, western Germany. (photo: Ina Fassbender / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — During a recent Senate hearing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen controversially claimed that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was highly beneficial to women economically — an assertion that is both inaccurate and demeaning to human dignity, according to some demographers and economists. 

According to Yellen, the legalization of abortion nationally “helped lead to increased labor-force participation. It enabled many women to finish school; that increased their earning potential.” She said that studies on the economic impact of abortion show that “denying women access to abortion increased their odds of living in poverty or in need for public assistance.” 

Yellen’s remarks were immediately challenged by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who asked, “Did you say that ending the life of a child is good for the labor-force participation rate?” 

One notable example of a woman who did not need abortion to succeed, given by Scott, was his mother. He said she  “worked long hours to keep us out of poverty” as a single mother. He told Yellen at the hearing, “As a guy raised by a black woman in abject poverty, I’m thankful to be here as a United States senator.” 

He later wrote in The Washington Post that his mother “was a nurse’s aide, changing bedpans and rolling patients. She did this work because she wanted to teach my brother and me a lesson that there is dignity in all work and dignity in all life.”

In fact, the claims advanced about abortion helping women economically and being necessary to a woman’s career success have been challenged by both economists and prominent pro-life women over the years. 

Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Scholar in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Register that Yellen’s claim was “breathtakingly utilitarian.” He said it was similar to “a ruthlessly eugenic argument, that one could also make about old, sick people being a burden on the economy. We have a little bit of what was once in Germany called the ‘lives not worth living’ problem here because they’re a little bit inconvenient.” 

In this worldview “there’s not a little bit of eugenics,” he added. “When Margaret Sanger could speak without fear of being corrected, she’d talk about the unfit, that this was a way of dealing with the unfit. We don’t say that anymore, but we talk about poverty instead. But the arguments are very similar.”

Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, wrote in 1922 that “the lack of balance between the birth-rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit,’ admittedly the greatest present menace to the civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes,” labeling “the inferior classes” or unfit to have children as “the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken.” 


An Incomplete Picture

Eberstadt also questioned Yellen’s linking of abortion access to increased labor-force participation, noting that women’s labor-force participation was “increasing before Roe v. Wade, and it has been declining during Roe v. Wade since the turn of the century despite the existence of essentially unconditional, universal abortion on demand. We’ve seen a gradual and steady decline in female labor-force participation, especially for women of prime working ages; that would be the ages in which most people would be raising children.” 

He added that “we’ve seen a significant decline in fertility over the last decade and a half, which seems to be related to a change in desired family size rather than anything else. We have a larger number of young women who are seemingly interested in a child-free life at the same time that we’re seeing a decline in female labor-force participation,” he said, pointing out that these are some of the “contradictions that should be identified” in Yellen’s view of how abortion and childbearing impact the workforce. 

He also pointed out that “very few abortions take place in the final trimester of pregnancy”; and “if the argument she is intimating is that unconditional abortion is necessary for the functioning of the female labor market, I think it’s pretty clear that that doesn’t comport, even with the facts of the disposition of current abortions.” 

In response to Scott, Yellen claimed that “one aspect of a satisfying life is being able to feel that you have the financial resources to raise a child, that the children you bring into the world are wanted, and that you have the ability to take care of them. In many cases, abortions are of [the demographic of] teenage women, particularly low-income and often Black, who aren’t in a position to be able to care for children, have unexpected pregnancies, and it deprives them of the ability often to continue their education to later participate in the workforce. So there is a spillover into labor-force participation. And it means that children will grow up in poverty and do worse themselves. This is not harsh; this is the truth.”

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control contradict Yellen’s perception that many of the women getting abortion are teenagers. According to CDC data from 2019, just 9% of the women getting abortions are teenagers, 57% are ages 20-29, and more than a third are 30 or older. Eberstadt said Yellen seemed to be “talking about the world she remembers in 1973,” but nowadays, “generally speaking, the trends in abortion have paralleled the trends in unwed childbearing.” The CDC noted for 2020 that the nonmarital birth rate for women aged 15-19 dropped “6% (to 14.4 per 1,000 in 2020), and the rate for females aged 15-17 declining to another all-time low (6.3). Conversely, the nonmarital birth rate reached historic peaks for women aged 35-39, to 37.3, and for women aged 40-44, to 11.4.”


Flawed Study on Link to Poverty

David Reardon, director of the Elliot Institute and associate scholar with the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, told the Register that Yellen’s argument that “denying women access to abortion increased their odds of living in poverty or in need for public assistance” was not backed by many studies as she had claimed. Reardon said that the only study that came to mind that made that sort of contention was the “Turnaway” study, a study by a pro-abortion-rights organization that collected data from women who sought abortions at 30 abortion providers between 2008 and 2010.

That study followed up with 146 women who had been turned away from receiving an abortion because they were too far along in pregnancy and compared their socioeconomic outcomes over time to 382 women who received an abortion near the limit of when it was permitted. 

While the study concluded that “women denied an abortion were more likely than were women who received an abortion to experience economic hardship and insecurity lasting years,” some of the findings called into question Yellen’s characterization of abortion’s impact on women. The study found that “there was no statistically significant difference” between the women who obtained an abortion and those who gave birth in terms of full-time employment four years after. The study also found “no differences in household income between turnaway-births and near limits at 6 months or over time,” but claimed that “because of increases in household size, turnaway-births were more likely to live in poverty.”

Reardon highlighted the study’s methodological flaws, saying it was made up of “an unreliable self-selected sample of women” and pointed out the small sample size and that “70% of the women asked to participate in the study refused to participate, and the only ones participating were paid $50 to do so at each interview.” He also pointed out the pro-abortion position of those conducting the study. The researchers are part of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a collaborative research group at the University of California, San Francisco, Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, which includes as part of its mission that “all people have access to birth control, abortion, sex education, pregnancy and birth care and HIV/STI treatment — regardless of their age, ethnicity, income or where they live.”


Workers and Mothers

Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, co-authored an amicus brief in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case representing 240 women scholars and professionals and various pro-life organizations that questioned the narrative in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision that women rely on abortion in order to advance socially and economically.

The brief’s authors pointed out that while abortion was on the decline, women in the workforce with a college degree were on the rise. 

“From 1990 to 2016, abortion rates declined 46% from 345 to 186, and abortion ratios fell 52% from 24 to 11.6,” they wrote. “During this same period, however, the percentage of women in the workforce with a college degree or more rose from 24.5% to 41.6%. This is a 70% increase. Women also continued to earn an increasing percentage of men’s income, rising from 70.9 to 81.9 or a 15.5% increase.”

In response to Yellen’s remarks, Bachiochi tweeted, “to increase economic growth, the Treasury Secretary tells us we need women to be workers. For women to be workers, they can’t be mothers too for then we’d have to change how we think about everything. And that’s no good. So don’t let Roe go.”

She told the Register in a statement via email that “there is immense economic pressure in this country against childbearing, especially for low-income workers, but also for professionals for whom children are deemed ‘an opportunity cost.’ Corporate consultants today push the ‘business case for reproductive health’ as a means for companies to obtain ‘high impact benefit with low cost investment.’ Why not invest instead in the culturally (and economically) essential work their employees do as parents? Easy answer: Abortion is far better for the bottom line.”